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Congregations Strive, Survive as Recession Hangs On

When InterConnections talked with congregational leaders in March they were adjusting to the new reality of declining contributions, members without jobs, and the possible need for budget and program cuts.

How is it now? This fall, InterConnections went back to the same congregations to find out how they’re faring.

In March, the Unitarian Universalist (UU) Church of Lexington, KY (298 members), was coping with a deficit of $27,000 from its stewardship campaign the previous fall. Contributions, fundraising, and refinancing of some debt reduced the shortfall substantially, but not completely.

When InterConnections spoke to the Rev. Cynthia Cain in March, she called the situation discouraging. To meet the deficit, all committee budgets were eliminated, hours were reduced for all program staff except the minister, $5,000 was cut from the minister’s professional expenses, and the congregation’s recommended Fair Share contribution to the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) was eliminated. Volunteers cut the grass and shoveled snow.

Cain, contacted again in September, said the congregation raised enough money last spring to restore the RE director’s hours, but most of the other cuts remain. The congregation found a creative way to pay a small part of its Fair Share to the UUA for the year that ended June. “We sent home small boxes with members, asking them to put a dollar a day into them, until there was enough to pay the $77 that we annually contribute to the UUA and our district for each member,” said Cain.

This year’s stewardship campaign at Lexington got underway in mid-September and it’s too early to tell how it will do, Cain said. “I do think people feel more hopeful now about the future, but there is still an underlying feeling of anxiety. People don’t seem to talk a lot about the national economy. I suspect Kentucky is not as adversely affected as some other areas. We have maybe six people who have been laid off.”

In March, Cain admitted to being frustrated that not enough people understood responsible giving. She believes a new type of stewardship drive may be necessary, and said the congregation plans to investigate moving to a year-round drive, where part of the membership is visited each month. “I think that the only way we’re going to readjust attitudes toward money is to go to a year-round campaign where there will be time to talk with people not only about money, but about their relationship to the church and their responsibilities as well.”

Laurel Amabile, the director of the UUA’s Annual Program Fund, said contributions at the end of the first quarter of the fiscal year are running at a similar pace to previous years. The goal for the current year is $257,000 less than the amount raised last year.

“We think we will make our goal of $6.608 million,” she said. “All our projections indicate that we can count on that level of congregational support this year.” Last year, congregations contributed $6.865 million toward the goal of $7.166 million. The Annual Program Fund had exceeded its goals the two previous years, she said, but achieving nearly 96 percent of goal in a financially challenging year points to the commitment of congregations to their Association.

Amabile said she is finding congregational leaders cautiously optimistic this fall, noting that some congregations actually found their per-member pledging increasing.

The Associated Press issued a report September 28 that paints a bleaker picture. According to a researcher for the Faith Communities Today multifaith survey, 10 to 15 percent of congregations will be in serious financial trouble by the end of the current church year.

The Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco issued a report in September indicating that the economy has begun a slow recovery. However, joblessness and foreclosures continue to rise, credit remains tight, and consumer spending is “anemic.” The report predicts the recovery “will gradually pick up steam over the next year or two,” and notes that this recession is the longest since 1933.

Hopeful times turned into hard times at First Unitarian Church of Oakland, CA (310 members). The state was hit hard by the recession and currently has a 12 percent unemployment rate. As a result, pledge payments dropped off. The congregation had to let a half-time minister and a quarter-time youth specialist go this year. In addition, senior minister the Rev. Kathy Huff and the church manager both took 12 percent pay cuts. The whole staff was furloughed for the month of July.

Some creative shifting of staff and financial resources kept the youth ministry and other key programs going. Church members also formed a “Game Changers” employment support group.

Huff said she expects the stewardship drive this fall to be “flat.” The church is finishing what was to have been a $2 million earthquake retrofit and renovation of the sanctuary, although some of the aesthetics of the project, including a reconfiguration of the chancel area and some advanced lighting, had to be cut.

The good news, Huff said, is that she no longer hears about someone losing a job every week. And church membership is up, she said, with more than 35 new congregants this year. “Some new people have told me they came because they needed a spiritual home in these hard times.”

First Unitarian Church in Portland, OR (1,080 members), faced a deficit of $185,000 as members lost jobs and pledge amounts fell. It announced plans to close for the month of July, but a member made a gift of $50,000 and others contributed $95,000, which in addition to some budget cutting, kept the church open and operating.

This fall there are still many members out of work or underemployed, said acting senior minister the Rev. Thomas Disrud, but pledge income is holding up. To conserve money, the church office is closed on Fridays and part of the church complex is dark on Wednesday nights, with programming moved to other nights. In addition, there are no raises for staff this year, and staff is paying 10 to 30 percent more for health care. But these steps have helped the church avert layoffs, Disrud said. “We ended the fiscal year in June with a $5,000 deficit, which is good for a church with a $1.8 million budget,” he noted.

Last spring, the church organized support groups for people without jobs and those are continuing this fall. The congregation has a practice of giving half of its Sunday collection to local charities, but in September that money went to the church’s emergency fund, for use by members in need. Disrud said the fund has paid out four to five times more than what is normal this year. This past summer another program, First Share, invited members to bring extra garden produce to church for those who needed it.

The congregation will also open a day shelter for homeless families beginning November 1 in its new Buchan Building. It can shelter up to 24 people seven days a week.

“I think in the congregation as a whole there is a sense that things seem to be getting better,” Disrud said. “It doesn’t feel as pressing. I perceive a shift from reacting to the events of the world to looking more to how we might change the world. At the same time, there is an awareness our lives are not going to be the same. We need to make changes to live more sustainably.”


Dr. Wayne Clark has compiled 11 papers that relate to stewardship in difficult economic times. The collection, “Giving During Tough Economic Times,” includes “Best Practices” compiled by UUA stewardship consultants and “Ministry in Hard Times,” by the Rev. Dan Hotchkiss, a consultant for the Alban Institute.

The UUA has Stewardship Resources to help with annual fund drives and other fundraising events.

About the Author

  • Donald E. Skinner was the founding editor of the InterConnections newsletter for congregational leaders and a senior editor of UU World from 1998 until his retirement in 2014. He is a member of the Shawnee Mission Unitarian Universalist Church in Lenexa, Kansas.

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